Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 38

by Laura Anne Gilman

If you write your story in one go-and-done, then this entry is not for you.  Kick back, and come back next week.

Still with me?  Excellent.  So you’ve done the hard lifting: you’ve gotten from Once Upon A Time to “And then dragons ate them all” – oh sorry, “Happily Ever After.”  You have what many of us refer to as “Draft Zero.”

At this point, you have two options.

You may read over it and think “yes, perfect!”  If so, in my editorial experience, you’re either lazy or letting your ego run the show to the detriment of the actual performance.  But if you’re still reading, you have already gotten past that.

You may read over it and think “oh my god it sucks.”  This is something you will hear many many times, from writers (myself included) who should know better.

It’s a draft.  It’s supposed to suck.  It might, in fact, suck like a Hoover on steroids.  You might have to scalpel out the bits that work and toss the rest to the scrap heap.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write.  It doesn’t mean the book won’t work.  It doesn’t even mean that you went in the wrong direction and need to start again (although you might).

Every book you write is a new experience, and you’re (hopefully) using new skills learned since the last go-round.  If you expect to get it all right – while crafting an entirely new story – in the first go-round, it’s time to Let. It. Go.

Recognizing that you didn’t get it right straight out of the gate, and being willing to start again, is one of the places where the line between professionals and amateurs is drawn.  A professional knows that their “it sucks” reaction is just part of the process.

There is no room for ego in Draft Zero.

Nothing is sacred.  You may think that the words, once on the page, are inviolate.  You may believe that the story as you first envisioned it is the only way it can be told.  But a story evolves as we tell it.  What we come to at the end informs what we said at the beginning, just as the beginning shapes the end (story as Oroborous worm).  Your understanding of the story you are telling is not complete until the telling is done.

Words are meant to be erased/deleted/scrawled out with extreme prejudice.  This is particularly true in Draft Zero.  Nobody is reading over your shoulder making comments about neatness (if they are, give them a sharp elbow in the chest and tell them to go make you a cup of tea). As you ignored the inner editor while writing, now is when it’s time to let him/her in.  Listen to the hard truths about the work.  Keep the ego outside the door until you’re done.  When you hit “final draft” (or as I call it, “my editor gets to see this one” draft) then ego gets to come out and strut.

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Coming up in Week 39: Follow No False Gods

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, including the upcoming urban fantasy TRICKS OF THE TRADE (12/11), and THE SHATTERED VINE, Book 3 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy (10/11).  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 38 — 5 Comments

  1. I want to share this with my middle school students! Seriously. One of my goals this year is to get them past the concept that you only write it once. These are kids in a Learning Strategies class. Some find writing to be very difficult. They have quite aggressive internal editors, to the degree that they obsess over the slightest spelling mistake.

    Some years talking to my kids about my professional writing life doesn’t make a difference. Some years it does. I’m sensing that this might be the year that it does make a difference. Pulling up passages like this to share with them is one thing which helps immensely.

  2. Good Luck, Joyce-Mocha. Your work with these kids is admirable.

    As for rough drafts, the rough part says a lot. I’ve heard it said (can’t remember who said it first) that a rough draft is like pushing a peanut across a dirty floor with your nose.

    Each draft gets a little cleaner. I’m down to about 4, maybe 5 if you count the line edit I do just before submitting final revisions.

    Time and time again, the final scene, or the final line of that rough draft tells me more about my plot and characters than any amount of fussing with the beginning — and I do a lot of that!

  3. There are people who, as a party trick, will write a story in one sitting. Harlan Ellison famously did this once in a store window., for charity. Of course (a) nobody went and bought it right out of the store window, and (b) it was by no means Ellison’s first story, or even his tenth, or even his hundredth. Also you can bet he didn’t -start- that story in the store window; he probably was thinking about it for days, weeks, months earlier. People who do not have to rewrite are rarer than unicorns.
    And people who rewrite? Many, many famous writers are manic rewriters. It is said of Gene Wolfe that he did not feel he had achieved a first draft until he had rewritten the ms ten times. Then, it was finally in shape to really be worked on.
    The story is told of John Irving, author of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. As you know, Bob, the novel was a best seller and made into a movie starring Robin Williams. Irving was spotted, reading the book out loud to his kids from the MMPB edition. He was reading it -with a pencil in hand-, marking changes as he went along. So even best-sellerdom, even Robin Williams in the starring role, cannot throttle the urge to just fix this one bit right here.

  4. So true…when I first started writing, I expected my first draft to be perfect. Not because I thought I was a genius, but because I thought that’s what “real writers” were able to do. Of course since then I’ve learned and grown (hopefully), and now a draft isn’t ready until it’s ready.

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